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The ‘very fine people’ at Charlottesville: Who were they?

The violence that erupted in Charlottesville the summer of 2017, and then-President Trump's response to it, was a flash point in the 2020 presidential race. (Video: The Washington Post)

“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group … There were people in that rally — and I looked the night before — if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest, and very legally protest.”

— President Trump, Aug. 15, 2017

“I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.”

— Trump, April 26, 2019

The violence in Charlottesville in the summer of President Trump’s first year in office continues to be a flash point in the presidential campaign. After one woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed by a white supremacist while she protested a rally of alt-right groups, Trump made a series of statements that politically backfired on him. In his first remarks, he condemned racism but suggested “both sides” were equally at fault. Members of his CEO manufacturing council resigned in protest, and Gary Cohn, a top economic aide at the time who is Jewish, also considered resigning.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has made Trump’s response to Charlottesville a central part of his argument that Trump is unfit to be president. Trump “assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said in his presidential announcement speech a year ago. “And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”

But memories fade and new narratives take hold. Over the course of several days, Trump did not speak with precision and he made a number of contradictory remarks, permitting both his supporters and foes to create their own version of what happened.

This fact check, and the video above, will set the record straight on who was in Charlottesville that weekend. We wanted to put this issue to rest before it emerged again in the presidential campaign.

The Facts

The Charlottesville City Council in February 2017 had voted to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that had stood in the city since 1924, but opponents quickly sued in court to block the decision. In June 2017, the City Council voted to give Lee Park, where the statue stood, a new name — Emancipation Park. (In 2018, the park was renamed yet again to Market Street Park.)

The city’s actions inspired a group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and related groups to schedule the “Unite the Right” rally for the weekend of Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville. There is little dispute over the makeup of the groups associated with the rally. A well-known white nationalist, Richard Spencer, was involved; former Ku Klux Klan head David Duke was a scheduled speaker. “Charlottesville prepares for a white nationalist rally on Saturday,” a Washington Post headline read.

Counterdemonstrations were planned by people opposed to the alt-right, such as church groups, civil rights leaders and anti-fascist activists known as “antifa,” many of whom arrived with sticks and shields.

Suddenly, a militia group associated with the Patriot movement announced it was also going to hold an event called 1Team1Fight Unity in Charlottesville on Saturday, Aug. 12, rescheduling an event that has been planned for Greenville, S.C., 370 miles away. Other militia groups also made plans to attend.

On the night of Aug. 11, the neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups marched on the campus of the University of Virginia, carrying flaming torches and chanting anti-Semitic slogans.

This is where Trump got into trouble. While he condemned right-wing hate groups — “those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans” — he appeared to believe there were peaceful protesters there as well.

“You had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists — because they should be condemned totally,” Trump said on Aug. 15, several days after the rally. “But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”

He added: “There were people in that rally — and I looked the night before — if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones.”

But there were only neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the Friday night rally. Virtually anyone watching cable news coverage or looking at the pictures of the event would know that.

It’s possible Trump became confused and was really referring to the Saturday rallies. But he asserted there were people who were not alt-right who were “very quietly” protesting the removal of Lee’s statue.

But that’s wrong. There were white supremacists. There were counterprotesters. And there were heavily armed anti-government militias who showed up on Saturday. “Although Virginia is an open-carry state, the presence of the militia was unnerving to law enforcement officials on the scene,” The Post reported.

The day after Trump’s Aug. 15 news conference, the New York Times quoted a woman named Michelle Piercy and described her as “a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.” She told the Times: “Good people can go to Charlottesville.”

Some Trump defenders, such as in a video titled “The Charlottesville Lie,” have prominently featured Piercy’s quote as evidence that Trump was right — there were protesters opposed to the removal of the statue.

Piercy did not respond to requests for an interview. On her Facebook page, Piercy a few days before the rally changed her cover photo to the logo of American Warrior Revolution (AWR), a militia group that attended the rally.

As far as we can tell, Piercy gave one other interview about Charlottesville, with the pro-Trump website Media Equalizer, which described AWR as “a group that stands up for individual free speech rights and acts as a buffer between competing voices.” Piercy told Media Equalizer: “We were made aware that the situation could be dangerous, and we were prepared.”

That is confirmed by Facebook videos, streamed by AWR, that show roughly three dozen militia members marching through the streets of Charlottesville, armed and dressed in military-style clothing, supposedly seeking people whose rights were being infringed. Police encouraged them to leave, according to an independent review of the day’s events commissioned by Charlottesville, but they attracted attention from counterprotesters. One militia member then was hit in the head by a rock, halting their retreat. “The militia members apparently did not realize that they had stopped directly across the street from Friendship Court, a predominantly African-American public housing complex,” the review said.

A video posted on YouTube shows Heyer briefly crossing paths with AWR after the militia group was challenged by residents and counterprotesters to leave the area.

Two revealing Facebook videos posted by the group have been deleted but were obtained by The Fact Checker. One, titled “The Truth about Charlottesville,” was posted on Aug. 12, immediately after law enforcement shut down the rally. It lasts about 25 minutes, and it is mostly narrated by Joshua Shoaff, also known as Ace Baker, the leader of AWR. Members of other militia groups also speak in the video.

There’s no suggestion the militias traveled to Charlottesville because of the Lee statue, though late in the video a couple of militia members make brief references to the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments. (The 207-page independent review commissioned by Charlottesville also makes no mention of peaceful pro-statue demonstrators.)

“We came to Charlottesville, Virginia, to tell both sides, the far right and the far left, listen, whether we agree with what you have to say or not, we agree with your right to say it, without being in fear of being assaulted by the other group,” Shoaff says. But he complains, “What happened when we came here? We were the one who were assaulted.”

During the video, a militia member who is black appears on screen, and Shoaff sarcastically says, “Hey, look, hey, there’s black guy in here, oh, my God.” At another point, an unidentified militia member says: “We are civil nationalists. We love America. We love the Constitution. We respect any race, any color. We are all about respecting constitutional values.”

After the city of Charlottesville sued AWR and other militia groups, Baker on Oct. 12 posted another video obtained by The Fact Checker. “We had long guns. We had pistols. We were pelted with bricks, and could have f---ing used deadly force. But we didn’t,” he declares. “We had the justification to use deadly force that day and mow people f---ing down. But we didn’t.”

Shoaff, on behalf of the group, signed a consent decree in May 2018 promising members would not to come to Charlottesville again “while armed with a firearm, weapon, shield, or any item whose purpose is to inflict bodily harm, at any demonstration, rally, protest, or march.” He did not respond to requests for an interview.

So what’s going on here? Anti-government militia groups are not racist but tend to be wary of Muslims and immigrants, according to experts who study the Patriot movement. “By and large, in my experience militia groups are not any more racist than any other group of middle-aged white men,” said Amy Cooter, a Vanderbilt University scholar who has interviewed many militia members. “Militias are not about whiteness, not about racism,” but their anti-Islam feelings spring from fear and ignorance of Muslims, she said.

Militias are strongly pro-Trump, but his election posed a conundrum: They had always been deeply suspicious of the federal government, but now it was headed by someone they supported. So they started to build up antifa as an enemy, falsely believing the activists are bankrolled by billionaire investor George Soros, according to Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Center on Extremism of the Anti-Defamation League.

Antifa, short for anti-fascist, sprung up to challenge neo-Nazis.

“Militias started showing up at events where left-wing elements would be, and that includes white-supremacist events,” Pitcavage said. “They aren’t white supremacists. They are there opposing the people opposing the white supremacists.”

Sam Jackson, a University at Albany professor who studies anti-government extremism, said that militia leaders have “strategic motivations to frame things in certain ways and it may not match real motivations.” That’s why they emphasize their defense of free speech and depict themselves as peacekeepers. But, he noted, “they never go out and protect the free speech rights of antifa and left-wing groups.”

Militia groups “purported to be there to protect the First Amendment rights of the protesters,” said Mary McCord, legal director at Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and counsel for Charlottesville in a lawsuit. The “real goal, the evidence showed, was to provoke violent confrontations with counterprotesters and make a strong physical showing of white supremacy and white nationalism. I certainly think that AWR knew which side it was ‘protecting,’ and made that choice willingly.”

In recent weeks, Trump has echoed the language he used regarding the Charlottesville attendees to encourage protests against social distancing orders. “These are very good people, but they are angry,” Trump tweeted on May 1. In other tweets, he urged governors to “liberate” states.

That’s the language of militias, McCord said — code for liberation from a tyrannical government. And who has been showing up at the rallies opposing shutdown orders? Armed militias associated with the Patriot movement.

The White House did not respond to a request for a comment on our findings.

The Pinocchio Test

The evidence shows there were no quiet protesters against removing the statue that weekend. That’s just a figment of the president’s imagination. The militia groups were not spurred on by the Confederate statue controversy. They arrived in Charlottesville heavily armed and, by their own account, were prepared to use deadly force — because of a desire to insert themselves in a dangerous situation that, in effect, pitted them against the foes of white supremacists.

Trump earns Four Pinocchios.

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